Promoting Learning in an Overcrowded Classroom
School overcrowding is one of those issues where teachers have very little control over the cause, but must deal with the effects. Classroom management, differentiating instruction, and providing timely feedback all become more challenging as the number of students increases.
So what, then, are teachers to do when faced with an overabundance of students but a limited amount of space, time, and energy to fulfill all of the individual learning needs in the room? There is no one-size-fits-all solution; however, there are strategies that can help turn even the most congested classroom setting into an environment conducive to learning and growth.
Creative use of space
Many of the difficulties faced in overcrowded classrooms are logistical. For example, teachers must find ways to optimize physical space in order to provide students with both safe and productive work environments.
While this is a dilemma all teachers must deal with, when room is tight and student populations are large it becomes that much more challenging. Some things to consider when optimizing an overcrowded space include:
- Purposeful classroom layouts – Avoid putting essential tools and materials all in the same place. Instead, spread commonly used items like pencil sharpeners, trach cans, collection bins, technology carts, and coloring implements to different corners of the room to avoid student congestion. Eliminate clutter and remove unneeded materials, especially in high-traffic areas. Consider getting students involved in the process of classroom design to help foster a sense of ownership.
- Flexible seating – It may seem antithetical that teachers can improve their classroom management by removing assigned seats, but flexible seating can actually help alleviate many behavioral and engagement-related issues. Allowing students to make choices about their optimal learning settings and configurations creates a classroom environment that is truly a shared space in service of learning, collaboration, and engagement. Students benefit from being able to work in self-selected places based upon their own comfort and self-assessed needs as opposed to being restricted by a rigidly enforced seating chart.
A student-centered workflow
Studies have shown that differentiated instruction should be a cornerstone of effective pedagogy. Ideally, each student deserves an educational experience that involves some degree of personalization. This is no easy task in the best of circumstances, but when the class rosters are large, it can feel like an impossibly unrealistic goal.
That said, teachers can infuse differentiation into classrooms of any size by purposefully designing workflows that are student-directed, have clear expectations, and allow for self-assessment.
- Establish learning centers – Student-run learning stations can create small-group opportunities within the confines of a large-group environment. When space is an issue, assembling kit-based lessons makes it easy for a learning space to transform quickly from one purpose to the next. What’s more, with the proper management structures in place, teachers can use center time as an opportunity to run their own differentiated, small-group instruction sessions.
- Create activity lists – Rather than trying to match each individual student to the perfect task at the perfect time, activity lists put the decision making into the hands of the students. Teachers create a differentiated list of tasks, activities, and assignments targeting curricular and standards-based aims. Students then select the options that suit them best in order to fulfill course expectations. Pairing these lists with purposeful scheduling activities can help reinforce student ownership.
- Incorporate self-assessment – A lot of students means a lot of work to assess. Reduce the stress of a towering pile of papers to grade by empowering students to assess themselves on certain formative tasks. This can help close the feedback loop for students a lot sooner than waiting for formal teacher feedback and allow students to achieve growth more quickly. As an added benefit, research shows that building this crucial executive function skill has benefits far beyond school walls.
Self-regulation and self-assessment are great, but sometimes students need help from someone else. It can be beneficial to allow students opportunities to turn to each other for support or even push each other to deepen their learning rather than relying exclusively on a teacher’s help.
There are a variety of ways to create peer-to-peer support networks in the classroom, regardless of how crowded:
- Foster academic conversation – Teach students how to talk to each other in purposeful, learning-focused ways. Set expectations for what classroom talk should sound like and use your own words and actions to model how. Give students helpful reminders like sentence-starters, academic word walls, and even exemplar scripts to keep them on track.
- Purposeful partnerships – Take the stress and chaos of impromptu matchmaking out of collaborative activities by creating partnership structures ahead of time. There is a wide variety of ways to pair or group students for learning, each with its own benefits and limitations.
- Digital collaboration - If technology is available, cloud-based options like Google Docs can allow students to work together in virtual space (wither asynchronously or in real-time) when physical space is hard to come by.
- Student-created resources - A student help board can encourage students to create resources to support peers while also demonstrating their own mastery of skills and concepts. Taking the project online can make support materials easier to access from a student’s chosen seat or even from home.
Just because a classroom is filled to capacity does not mean that learning has to suffer. When teachers get creative with their planning and design choices, it is possible to foster growth in even the most overcrowded settings.